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Sparsholt College, Winchester.
Sparsholt College near Winchester was my spiritual home for nearly three years in the early part of the new century. It was here that I discovered where I should have been working all of my life, it was pure, unadulterated bliss and contentment.
I’d taken early retirement from my life under the umbrella of nursing and social services because of a severe back problem, but after a couple of years being doped up with painkillers I wanted more than a half-life and a steady decline into old age and demise. So it was at this point whilst tending our beloved garden at home that I thought ‘gardening? Yes, why not get to know the professional side of it?’ So I took a ride to our local college at Sparsholt to see what they had on offer for an oldie like me.
Sparsholt College had been part of my vocabulary since I was a child. My mother had never forgiven my Grandfather for not allowing her to take up her scholarship there when she fourteen. She’d passed the entrance exam but they just didn’t have the money to afford her such luxuries. Instead, she was packed off to work ‘in service’ the same as any other young working class girl of that period. That would have been at the beginning of WW11, so I guess that was the reason.
Hampshire council started an agricultural college in November 1899 at Old Basing near Basingstoke. It wasn’t until 1914 that the college was moved to new premises at Westley Farm, Sparsholt near Winchester. The farm was 400 acres and the staff and students managed with the farm buildings and farmhouse until more appropriate buildings were built in 1926.
The aim of the college was ‘to provide instruction in the science and practice of agriculture and gardening, but particularly to make the practical side approach as nearly as possible to business conditions, consistent with educational purposes and to provide a centre for domestic work in the county’.
I was rather ashamed to admit that having lived most of my life within a stones throw of the College; I’d never actually been there. Hence, I had no idea what to expect. The drive in was enchanting along a tree lined avenue full of colour and full of happy youngsters enthusiastically going about their business. I later learned these weren’t the normal students but people from all parts of the country that use the facilities during the summer holidays. This is just one of the many things that Sparsholt offers. Its agricultural unit is second to none as is the fisheries department. Courses on offer range from equine studies to arboriculture; game and wildlife management to veterinary health sciences; rural business management to forestry, to name but a few. It’s an incredibly varied college and takes in students from many parts of the world as well as from Great Britain.
I duly found the main offices and was made very welcome. I came away with an armful of information including a prospectus and several forms to fill in. There seemed to be no doubt that I could start the horticultural course that I’d planned on and what’s more, I could do it part-time. The cost would be small. I felt very privileged.
When the course commenced at the end of September, I was rather apprehensive, wondering what I’d let myself in for and was I going to be able to cope. Not to mention the other people on the course. Would they all be youngsters? What a lovely surprise when I entered the class – there were people of all ages and from all types of backgrounds and they were probably as apprehensive as me.
From that day onwards the next couple of years were devoted to all things horticultural and to Sparsholt. I’d fallen in love with the place and wondered seriously why I’d not taken this step years ago.
Everything we were taught was a pleasure, nothing was too difficult and I was surprised at how easily the scientist in me rose to the surface again after being well buried since the mid 1970s when, as a mature student, I’d taken all the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels that I should have taken at school and then gone on to King Alfred’s College to study biology. What the education system doesn’t tell you is that you are going to enjoy educating yourself far more when YOU WANT to do it and not when someone tells you to in your teens.
The library was a haven of knowledge and nothing was too much trouble for the librarians. Everything was there, from the normal books one would expect, to the more obscure; to DVDs, magazines etc, on everything you could possibly want to research. The library environment was such a delight, an airy, open building with masses of huge windows to see the wonderful grounds. It was extremely hard to study sometimes; the place was such a paradise for the senses!
The teaching staff were wonderful people too and always so willing to help if you really couldn’t get to grips with any topic. And they were always into different projects such as preparing for the Chelsea or Hampton Court Flower Shows or preparing for ‘Gardeners Question Time’, a much loved institution of the BBC. There was always something going on and all carried out with love and enthusiasm, which of course, rubbed off on the students. We all wanted to get involved and we all wanted to be part of outings or visits.
My greatest regret was not going to Holland to experience their practices; or to Italy and France with their spectacular gardens. But this was mainly because of my family and home commitments. The absence was more than made up for by the vivid descriptions and photographs brought back by my fellow students and enthused over for months after. We did get to the more local places like the Eden Project in Cornwall. What a place! A truly amazing project and all carried out on donations and the enthusiasm of the people that started it all.
Enthusiasm seems to be the thread that runs throughout Sparsholt and it’s very infectious!
My first assignment was met with disbelief. I managed a ‘D’ grade. Oh the mortification! Everyone laughed at my naivety and it was explained to me that a ‘D’ grade was a ‘Distinction’ and the highest you could attain. Wow!!! From the depths of despair and thoughts of giving up, I was instantly transported to the heights of rapture and from that day on, never looked back. I think of all the 18 assignments I carried out over the two year, most of them were ‘D’s. There were a couple of ‘M’s (merits) but I think this lecturer was trying to get me to complete the degree course of which this was part. His comments were all fair though and I learned a lot from him, especially to be more analytical and less prosy in my writing.
Happy days! What do I remember most of all? The people probably firstly and I’ve remained friends with some of them. Pam and I visit Kew every year, and many other great gardens. This year we managed to get to the Chelsea Flower Show where we met up with Chris and his team from Sparsholt, who’d just gained a Gold medal for their garden exhibit! No mean achievement.
Memories: yes, I remember idyllic, warm lunchtimes on the lawns amongst the flowers, shrubs and trees when we all brought in a contribution of food and had Pimms from Dawns flask. Alcoholic? No, of course not! But the afternoons went by in a dream. Seeds and cuttings all taking root to my amazement. Getting wet, cold and dirty. Visiting fantastic gardens and listening to more enthusiastic owners talking about snowdrops. Weeding the Gardener’s Question Time shed roof. Yes, roof. It was an experiment in green living. Planting up exotic Japanese fungi and wondering if they really would germinate on that wood. Laboratory time with Aaron and trying to get it all right. The wonderful lakes. Learning about lawn mowers and how they worked on the last lesson and wishing I could go home, especially when it was so cold in mid winter. Watching the changing of the seasons with all the magical colours on the beautiful trees that dot the gardens. The earth sciences with Ray and having to do an exam all on my own with the most amazing results. I often wonder if he thought I’d copied it all, but I didn’t – it all just flowed because the subject was so fascinating. It’s remarkable what you remember when you’re in love with the subject. Bore holes and falls. Water tables and pHs. Acids and alkaline soils and the plants that will and will not grow in them. Plant identification with Rosie. It always amazed me that I could actually remember every single plant with their Latin names. And most of all, the summer holiday spent writing up a ‘book’ on plant diseases! The research and work that went into that was incredibly interesting and took the whole of the six or eight weeks we had off. But I got another ‘D’ for all my efforts.
Part of my course included landscape design. I was fascinated. So at the beginning of the third year I returned to start the complete course in landscape design. Unfortunately I was unable to complete it as our plans to move to Thailand had finally come to fruition. It was a sad moment to say ‘goodbye’ to such a wonderful place and I missed it very much for a long, long time.
Would I go back?
A resounding and wistful ‘Yes’!
Would I recommend the college to people?
Another resounding ‘Yes’ without hesitation!
And the last comment has got to be a huge ‘Thank You’ to everyone I met there who made those couple of years so memorable and such a joy.
Sparsholt College, Winchester, Hampshire. UK
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